Christmas at the House on an Irish Hillside (available only in e-book format) by Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Reviewed by Catherine “Bit” Devine
In the footsteps of the Seanchaí, Felicity Hayes-McCoy’s latest book well upholds the tradition of the storytellers of old. She skillfully weaves ancient legends, Irish traditions and the everyday happenings of life on the Dingle. I found myself hearing the story more than reading it, as Felicity writes in the manner of Irish speech. Each thread, each sentence, exclusive of the story itself but weaving you into and through the story, as a whole.
I appreciated her use of the Irish language and the thought she gives the reader in providing pronunciation. Her level of craft and care shows in the vividness with which she paints her scenes, whether lore or local. Even though I have oft heard the story of Oisín & Niamh, Felicity, like all good Seanchaí before her, has a way of making it fresh. As with every telling, I found myself holding my breath upon Oisín’s return, waiting and hoping that the ending would change this time and heartbroken when it did not.
From the very first line, I was transported, not just to that house on an Irish hillside but to the winter hearth of my own Gran. I not only read about the cold stone floors, I experienced the feel of them as if I was standing beside her in stocking feet.
“A clutch of eggs was hatched in straw under the press or a newborn calf was tied up by the settle to keep him warm at night”, Felicity writes and I am transported to Farm houses in the Armagh hills where that was a common place occurrence, as well. She speaks of long, cold winter nights, the solitude and the gatherings of friends to break that monotonous silence. I know well those long, cold nights and the raising of rafters in song and laughter. She speaks of a Candle in the front window of each house and I recall the flicker of light in each house along the Barr Road and of my own candle in the window here in Arizona. That candle, a simple beacon, a promise that the door to home will always be open in welcome and, so to every house along the path home.
When Felicity speaks of the shores of the Dingle and of the Irish people’s connection to the ocean:
“Life here on the Dingle peninsula is dominated by the presence of the ocean. There are blazing red-gold sunsets and dawn skies that shimmer like mother of pearl. The light constantly changes as the water responds to the moving patterns of the clouds. Sometimes the horizon’s a silver streak in an ocean of polished pewter. Sometimes it’s lost in swirling, shifting mist. For millennia it’s been a magnet drawing the brave, the curious and the hopeful towards the promise of new lands.”
You feel the pull of it just as strongly as if you were standing on its shores, yourself.
In her description of the house on the hillside, she says “the stones of which it’s built belong to the
mountain and they’d already been raised, knocked down and reused by many hands” and I find myself wondering what stories those “many hands” before Neillí had to tell.
I found myself wishing I, too, had known Neillí and Paddy in their time. Then came the realization that I knew of folks like them, salt of the earth, hardworking, finding joy in the small things and humor in the all times, whether dark or light. Neillí and Paddy could just as well have been my Gran’s Aunt Mary and her husband Michael or own my Gran & Granda. My Gran used to say that the Irish laughed not because they hadn’t known hard times but because they had.
If you’ve not yet found your way to "Christmas at the House on an Irish Hillside ," do yourself a favor and make your way there now. To be sure, there will be a candle burning, lighting your path.
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